Height of Fashion

Shoes that elevated the foot high above the ground appear early in the archaeological and ethnographic record. Adding height to shoes served to keep one's feet—or skirts or robes—out of the muck, water, snow, or hot sand. Height in shoes can be created with platforms, stilts, or heels. Shoes with heel-and-toe stilts appeared in most regions of the world from a very early period and were common among certain professions, such as among butchers. Platforms appeared somewhat later (around 200 B.C.) and served the same purpose as stilts.

Syriankabkab sandals

Kabkab sandals, Syria, circa 1900. Wooden sandals with mother-of-pearl inlay, 6 inches high.
PM 20-23-60/D1395

Height, however, came to serve other, less practical purposes as well: the mincing step, the tiny foot profile, the status symbol, the enhanced sexual attribute, or simply to make one appear taller. Kabkabs (the word is alliterative and refers to the clopping sounds the shoes make) elevated an Ottoman lady's feet above the wet and heated bathhouse floor, but the exaggerated height was no more effective in this than the lower ones. These sandals restricted movement and shortened a lady's step, and they came to indicate a lady of leisure, wealthy and unhurried. The Chinese platform shoes for women displayed here were worn by Manchu ladies and were designed to imitate the mincing step of ladies with bound feet. Exaggerated height in shoes reached a pinnacle with the Venetian chopine, which was popular in the seventeenth century and sometimes reached heights up to 20 inches.

Getas are a traditional style of Japanese footwear worn by both men and women. Consisting of a flat, rectangular wood sole and a V-shaped toe thong, they are raised on two wooden strips. High-platform getas were traditionally worn by the highest class of geishas. Everyday getas were about 2 inches high; higher getas were worn in the rain or in professions where keeping the feet well above ground was desirable. Emperor Hirohito wore 12-inch getas at his coronation in 1926.
Heels on shoes are a relatively late development, appearing in the early sixteenth century in Europe. Heels are thought to derive from the frequent patching that the soles of shoes required, although Leonardo Da Vinci is often credited with inventing the high heel. Both men and women wore high heels (2 to 3 inches) throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

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